Mindfulness-based stress reduction helps to calm the nervous system, create distance from our feelings, develop boundaries, and open to a more positive daily experience.
Feelings – both painful and pleasurable – inform and colour everything we do. From birth we all have different temperaments and some people have a more vivid and intense emotional life than others. How we were related to and cared for as children in early life also affects our emotional experience. (1)
Emotions – signals for life
Emotions are our signals, letting us know what our response is to something that is arising in our lives. When emotions occur, they turn on a range of physiological responses, expressive behaviours, and thoughts. For example, under threat, we feel anxious. The ‘threat’ might be an exam, a near accident or going out on a first date. We can recognise anxiety by the physical sensations of dry mouth, flushed face, tension and readiness in the body, and the thoughts of ‘What am I going to do now?’ and the impulse to get involved or get away! This fight/flight response prepares us for active engagement with the environment – which can help us generate the right kind of attention to deal with a particularly challenging situation.
When emotions get stuck into rigid patterns of expectation, they can become ongoing moods, traits or even disorders that feel constant and define our sense of self. Rather than useful transitory signals, our emotions can become ongoing painful states of being. (2)
For example, habitually anxious people don’t seem to be able to easily return to a state of relaxation once the ‘threat’ is gone. In fact they may go over and over the scenarios in their minds – living in a state of anticipatory vigilance about the possibility of future negative events. This rumination can actually go on to recreate the very painful emotions the person is trying to avoid by worrying and planning. This can lead to all sorts of other problems like using substances like alcohol and other drugs to calm down, or withdrawing from social engagements to avoid feelings.
I have experienced many terrible things in my life – some of which actually happened. – Mark Twain
Mark Twain elegantly points to the trap of anxiety and depression*: we can spend a lot of our life engaging in life-threatening situations which are largely being generated by the patterns of our own brain and body.
What is mindfulness?
If you let cloudy water settle, it will become clear.
If you let your mind settle, your course will also become clear. – Jack Kornfield
In the Buddhist meditative traditions, it has been known for centuries that the sustained practice of mindfulness can have profoundly healing and transformative effects in your life. Over the last 30 years, the Western scientific community has been increasingly interested in examining ‘mindfulness’. (3) Research has demonstrated that mindfulness enhances psychological, physical and behavioural functioning (3) and is associated with a range of well-being outcomes such as reduced stress, (4) reduced anxiety and depression (5) (6) (7) (8), as well as increased mental clarity and psychological health.(9)
Perhaps the most cited definition of mindfulness is from Professor Jon Kabat-Zinn: “the awareness that emerges through paying attention on purpose, in the present moment, and non-judgmentally to the unfolding of experience moment to moment”. (10)
What does this mean in practice?
Mindfulness involves training our attention and to do this we can use various aspects of our experience as the object of our focus: the breath, body sensations, walking or moving (as in yoga), ordinary daily activities like cooking and cleaning, and even thoughts and feelings.
Mindfulness-based stress reduction is about learning to be curious and be interested in the exact, subtle ‘flavour’ of every experience without trying to change it – whether it be joy, sadness, tension, embarrassment, a moment of contempt, a loving feeling, a headache or a heartache. This non-judgemental awareness brings a quality of ‘being’ into what you are ‘doing’. You focus on the process rather than the content of thoughts, feelings and sensations. Rather than trying to control or change any experience, you are invited to practise acceptance towards the dynamic field of changing thoughts, sensations and feelings as they arise and subside. This opens the way to a state of equanimity.
Mindfulness-based stress reduction: how it helps
You are the landscape, not the storm. – James Thornton
When we refuse to accept what we are feeling, we can get into an ongoing battle with ourselves. If we are feeling rather miserable one day, it is common for our mind to spontaneously recall all sorts of memories of past experiences of misery, and to project into the future how this misery will go on and on; we can read these thoughts and feelings being ‘true’. All sorts of judgements might arise about what ‘losers’ we are, how unlovable, and what we need to do to be different. Acceptance is the very powerful act of stepping out of the struggle about what is true in this moment, rather than continually engage in endless ruminations – which often lead to more self-criticism and attack. In mindfulness practice, people are encouraged to ‘sit with’ and observe their experience and to notice their reaction to it, but not act on that reaction. Paradoxically, becoming mindful in the moment often leads to the painful feeling subsiding more quickly, restoring a sense of balance and equanimity. (5)
Calming the nervous system
A by-product of mindfulness training is regulation of the nervous system. This results in many of the improved health outcomes associated with these programs including improved immune functioning, lowered blood pressure, reduced chronic pain, reduced muscle tension and headache, and lowered serum cholesterol and blood cortisol levels. (11)
Part of the therapeutic effects on conditions such as anxiety and depression are thought to stem from meditation’s effect on the brain. Paying attention in a mindful way actually engages parts of the brain which calm stress and emotions. (12)
Thoughts as thoughts – not facts
Practising mindfulness gives people some distance from or perspective on their feelings. People learn how to recognise thoughts as ‘just thoughts’ and not direct reflections of truth or reality. (5) Teasdale et al, who generated mindfulness-based cognitive therapy out of Kabat-Zinn’s work, (8) suggest that mindfulness trains people to recognise and interrupt patterns of rumination which can lead to depressive episodes.
Developing boundaries through mindfulness:
“I came into the program feeling depressed and anxious. I have a very out-of-control son who had been diagnosed with bipolar, and it was wreaking havoc with his life and mine. Through the practice I began to recognize how pre-occupied I was with his condition, his pain, his distress. I had no boundaries and literally could think of nothing else. I gradually used the practice to interrupt this pre-occupation and to actively choose activities and time for me. It is still painful, but I feel separateness from it. Paradoxically I can be of more help him as I am not so over-whelmed and angry” (Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction participant, Summer, 2005).
Tolerating, recognising and differentiating feelings…
As well as learning equanimity in the face of difficult feelings, mindfulness-based stress reduction training can help generate insights about feelings and how they can be used as signals for wise action. For example, underneath a habitual feeling of boredom and constant seeking of stimulation may be a fear of feeling empty or alone. Directly feeling that may be painful, but makes room for responding to that pain with appropriate action, rather than using unhelpful methods of self-soothing such as endless television, computer games or alcohol.
Sophie would interpret any arousal in her body as a signal that something terrible was about to happen; fear was a very familiar feeling for her. She discovered through the practice that she was particularly ‘blind’ to feelings to do with assertion (i.e., frustration and anger). As she began to be able to recognise these feelings, she was able to use these signals as cues to take assertive action, rather than protective action – which was her usual response to conflict. She was able to start setting stronger boundaries with her children and at work.
Mindfulness of feelings: riding the wave
When we apply our mindfulness skills to feelings, we gradually begin to discover that emotions are like waves – coming and going in different rhythms and intensities and various frequencies of occurrence. Just like being in the ocean among waves, we can feel cradled, rocked, swayed, tossed and tumbled or dumped until the particular force of each wave is spent. Waves can’t be fought, but need to be able to break over and through us and to then be able to flow away. As far as emotions go, there is no path to peace! There is only making peace, in this moment, and learning how to ride the wave through acceptance and exploration.
The way we feel and think about things profoundly affects the way we act in the world, so it is important to be able to recognise the feelings and thoughts which arise habitually in our lives. Feelings and thoughts are valuable, transient appraisals of the world: signals arising in the brain and body.
Practising this big perspective on our thoughts and feelings cultivates more flexibility and freedom in how we respond – to our own experience and to people and events in the world.
Regulating emotional energy
There are various ways we can use mindfulness-based stress reduction to renew our emotional energy and become skilled at regularly attending to our emotional needs.
Practise opening consciously to pleasant and positive emotions every day.
Become aware of any activity that is enjoyable, fulfilling and affirming for you and making sure that it is given time and space in your life.
Responding to the fight/flight emotions with enquiry and compassion assists us to bring a sense of acceptance and peace to these states, assisting their transformation.
Actively learning how to tolerate uncomfortable feelings without so much reactivity strengthens resilience, flexibility and growth.
Expanding your emotional repertoire – that is, getting to know the whole range of your emotions can be strengthening and enriching.
Cultivating emotional connection with others is nourishing.
Sometimes, change involves the healing of emotional wounding from the past – so it no longer operates so strongly as an unconscious expectation in current relationships.
Mindfulness-based stress reduction (MBSR) is based on the work of Professor Jon Kabat-Zinn and colleagues with hospital outpatients, at the University of Massachusetts Medical School. It is an evidence-based program which has been widely used and researched over the past 25 years and been found effective to alleviate suffering associated with depression, anxiety and chronic illness and pain. Openground’s Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction program also incorporates aspects of Mindfulness Based Cognitive Therapy (MBCT).
Depression is not simply normal sadness, being moody or just a low mood, but a serious illness. It causes both physical and psychological symptoms. Programs such as Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction and MBCT have been proven helpful in dealing with depressed mood and to prevent relapse into a major depression. If you are experiencing depression, check with your doctor about treatments.
The more you understand yourself and your feelings, the more you become a lover of what is. – Baruch Spinoza
1. Siegel, D.J., (1999) The Developing Mind, New York: The Guildford Press
2. Matsumoto, D., 2007, Public talk, Happiness and It’s Causes conference, Sydney.
3. Brown, K.W. & Ryan, R.M. (2003). The benefits of being present: Mindfulness and its role in psychological well-being. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 84(4), 822-848.
4. Speca, M., Carlson, L.E., Goody, E., & Angen, M. (2000). A randomised wait-list controlled clinical trial: The effect of a mindfulness meditation-based stress reduction program on mood and symptoms of stress in cancer outpatients. Psychosomatic Medicine, 62, 613-622.
5. Kabat-Zinn, J., Massion, A.O., Kristeller, J., Peterson, L.G., Fletcher, K., Pbert, L., et al. (1992). Effectiveness of a meditation-based stress reduction program in the treatment of anxiety disorders. American Journal of Psychiatry, 149, 936-943.
6. Astin, J.A. (1997). Stress reduction through mindfulness meditation. Effects on psychological symptomology, sense of control, and spiritual experience. Psychotherapy Psychosomatic, 66, 97-106.
7. Williams, K. A., Kolar, M. M., Reger, B. E., & Pearson, J. C. (2001). Evaluation of a wellness-based mindfulness stress reduction interven- tion: A controlled trial. American Journal of Health Promotion, 15, 422– 432.
8. Segal, Z. V., Williams, J.M.G., & Teasdale, J.D. (2002). Mindfulness-based cognitive therapy for depression: A new approach to preventing relapse. New York: Guilford Press.
9. Reibel, D.K., Greenson, J.M., Brainard, G.C., Rosenzweig, S. (2001). Mindfulness-based stress reduction and health-related quality of life in a heterogeneous patient population. General Hospital Psychiatry, 23, 183-192.
10. Kabat-Zinn, J. (2003). Mindfulness-based interventions in context: Past, present, and future. Clinical Psychology: Science & Practice, 10, 144-156.
11. Grossman , P., Nieman, L., Schmidt, S., Walach, H., (2004) Mindfulness-based stress reduction and health benefits: A meta-analysis. Journal of Psychosomatic Research, 57 (2004) 35-42.
12. Siegel, D., (2007) The Mindful Brain: Reflections and Attunement in the Cultivation of Well-being, New York, London: W.W Norton and Co.
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